Thanks to a peripatetic (but happy) childhood, Hanya Yanagihara is an especially adaptable adult. “I can always make friends wherever I go,” she tells R29 co-founder and global editor-in-chief Christene Barberich in this week’s episode of UnStyled. “Nothing lasts forever. As bad as something is, it will end, and as good as something is, it will eventually end...I can make it work wherever I land.”
This resourcefulness has served Yanagihara well — professionally and creatively. Among those who work with words, hers is a career trajectory unlike anyone else’s. Toiling for nearly two decades in media — first, briefly, as a book publicist, then as a magazine editor — she found time to work during off-hours on a novel, The People in the Trees...it took her 18 years to finish, but she finished. She was 38 when it was published. “If you publish your [first] book when you’re older...you already know who you are,” she says. “This idea of defining yourself as an author, as a writer. If you can’t say who else you are by that point, if you don’t have some other identity, if you don’t have something in life that gives you satisfaction, you’re sunk.”
While that first book made a quiet arrival on the literary scene, Yanagihara managed to deliver an astonishing follow-up book, A Little Life, in a speedy 18 months. And it changed her life. Thanks to word of mouth, it unexpectedly became a globally acclaimed bestseller, a literary phenomenon seen on hundreds of thousands of beach towels, nightstands, and subway cars since its debut in 2015. What other Man Booker Prize nominees — no less one that deals so unflinchingly with pedophilia, sexual abuse, addiction, recovery, and ordinary tragedy — have inspired a T-shirt worn by Antoni on an episode of Queer Eye?
“If you’re getting your dream job and it’s still your dream job, then you haven’t been that imaginative, because you should have really thought of something else,” she jokes.
Her next act, after A Little Life, wasn’t what anyone expected — editor-in-chief of T: The New York Times Style Magazine, a post she assumed in 2017, two years after A Little Life transcended from book to ground-breaker.
But, newly anointed Very Important, Very Brilliant Author or not, Yanagihara considers T her dream job, even if traditional magazines (and media at large) are going through some pretty ugly transitions (if not death throes). She’s philosophical about that — and the whole “dream job realized” thing, too. “If you’re getting your dream job and it’s still your dream job, then you haven’t been that imaginative, because you should have really thought of something else,” she jokes.
As she savors every moment at T, Yanagihara continues to see the profound impact of A Little Life on other writers, artists, and readers — some of whom, heartbreakingly, relate to its depiction of childhood sexual abuse, particularly men. “I’ve heard from many men about this book, some of whom tell me things they’ve not told people before and I just think, ‘God, we’re really failing as a society if young men . . . didn’t feel that they could say [as children] to someone ‘I’ve been abused or I’ve been hurt’ because they felt it would make them less of a man,” she says.
Hear the rest of Hanya’s story and fascinating chat with Christene — what inspired A Little Life, her writing and creative life, and more — by clicking here and (please! please!) subscribing to UnStyled via Apple Podcasts today.